Now that the president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, has reportedly died, the country he left behind will have to do something it has never done in its modern form: select a new leader. Karimov ruled Uzbekistan when Russia was still the Soviet Union, and, like most other Central Asian rulers, he did so with an iron fist, hiding a dictatorship behind a disguise of democracy. The stability of the country now rests on the stability of the succession process, but that process itself rests on the exigencies not of electoral politics but of clan politics, something fairly alien to most in the West.
Uzbek society, like the societies of most countries in Central Asia, is divided sharply along clan lines. The most prominent Uzbek clans are the Tashkent, the Samarkand and the Fergana, though four smaller clans — Jizzakh, Kashkadarya, Khorezm and Karakalpak — have a notable presence in the country. In recent years, members of the Fergana clan have been systematically removed from positions of power, leaving members of the Tashkent and the Samarkand to compete for power.
Karimov was a member of the Samarkand clan, so it stands to reason that its members would promote one of their own to replace him. Of all the candidates, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev stands out as the logical frontrunner. The Uzbek people know him, and he is a savvy government leader. In years past, however, his promotion has been opposed by Rustam Inoyatov, a powerful member of the rival Tashkent clan who leads the country's security services. Clans are not the only area in which these two men differ. Mirziyoyev is more open to change and to fostering foreign relations, while Inoyatov is heavier handed, preoccupied with internal stability and predisposed to maintain his country's neutrality.
Of course, no one thought Karimov would live forever, so the debate over his succession has gone on for more than a decade. In fact, it is possible a solution is already in place — one that satisfies the Tashkent and the Samarkand. Before he died, Karimov handed many of his responsibilities to Mirziyoyev and Inoyatov. According to one potential solution, Mirziyoyev will assume the presidency as Inoyatov runs the show behind the scenes. Or the pair could agree to a third-party president, such as Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov, who is also seen as a reformer and keen financial mind but not politically calculated enough to consolidate power.
Notably excluded from these possible arrangements are members of the Fergana clan, who used to be among the most powerful people in the country. Their leaders, now purged from the government, are in no position to succeed Karimov, though some younger leaders may try. The problem with such an undertaking is that Uzbekistan boasts a volatile populace, even by the standards of the region. Any power grab outside a negotiated transition could be enough to shake the entire country. Clan wars of the past have destabilized not only the Uzbek government but the region as a whole.
The coming days should reveal the direction in which the succession is headed. The country will celebrate its independence Sept. 1, and whoever replaces Karimov as the master of ceremonies may be a key player in the succession scheme — if not the successor himself. But signs of instability will be just as important to watch. If security forces are deployed to any of the major hot spots, including the cities of Tashkent, Samarkand and Fergana, or if wide-scale arrests are in the offing, the succession may not be as smooth as the late president would have liked.